BOOK: Grandmother and the Priests

With delight I am making my way through a book I discovered many years ago, as we count the years, even before I entered Holy Church. I recall my own grandmother reading all the books of this writer.

Taylor Caldwell

Grandmother And The Priests


In 1904, a little girl is shipped off to the house of her wealthy Irish grandmother in Leeds.  The widow’s relationship with the Church is strained, but she retains a great respect and affection for priests.  She regularly invites groups of priests poor and well off, of the city or of the country, to dine at her fine table.  Her requirement is story-telling.  The priests are to tell a story, which the spellbound girl overhears and remembers.

Here is a snippet, a description of some of the clerics of the day.

As her family had been so devoted to priests and the Religious when she had been a girl at home, Rose Mary had come to look upon them all with affection. The priests in her day were not Elegant English Gentlemen, but were men of vigor and strength and imagination. They had to be, to survive in those days in Scotland and England. The weak among them had no chance at all. But even those who survived were chronically poor and hungry, as were most of their parishioners, chronically shabby and threadbare, with neat patches visible at knee and elbow and boot. What woolen scarves they had were made by female relatives, or old ladies in their poverty-stricken parishes. Moreover, most of the priests had large numbers of indigent brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, not to mention old parents, and to these went most of their tiny stipends, if any, and all of the meager gifts.

They were not persecuted, of course, in either Scotland or England, but they were ignored by all but Catholics. They appeared to live in a world that found them invisible. They had no friends except those of their own Faith, and if some of the more daring reached out a kind and tentative hand towards a possibly different friend, they were immediately accused of attempting to make converts. Rare was the Protestant minister, however full of good will, who would challenge his own congregation by inviting some starveling young priest to dinner. A minister who paused on the street to speak to a ‘Roman’ colleague was inviting the darkest of suspicions and even darker glances. Sisters meekly collecting for charities in shops were usually roughly ordered out at once, unless the shopkeeper were Catholic, himself.

So priests in England, Scotland and Wales in those days led very rigorous lives, and they needed all the humor, affection, sympathy and kindness they could get from their own people. It was no life for the faint-hearted, the timid or the too gentle, or the openly sensitive. Sons of a brawling people, they did not hesitate openly to protect a victim of a gang on some sordid street. They did not rush for a policeman. They rescued the victims themselves, and punched and kicked with fervor. Their garb did not protect them at a time when they were objects of derision. Many a priest suffered a broken head or a limb on his missions of violent mercy, but one can be sure that they gave as good as they got. Each of them would have eagerly offered his life in martyrdom for his Faith and his God, and considered such martyrdom the most blessed of Graces. But a helpless woman who was being beaten by her drunken husband, or a child who was being tormented by cruel adults, often had reason to rejoice encountering a passing priest drawn by her screams and groans. The deep humility of their souls, which would have prevented them from defending their own persons except when in danger of death, did not permit priests to stand by while the weak were being attacked or tortured. Many priests died of injuries in the slums of London and Liverpool and Manchester, when their attempts to save a helpless man, woman or child failed, or even when they succeeded. They had to be brawny and vigorous men, of courage, steadfastness and strength. They met the devil face to face many times in their lives, and often gave their lives and blood in the struggle against him. But still they preserved their good humor under the direst of challenges, and as they were mighty men they were singularly gentle and uncomplex, the first to help, the first to comfort, the first to offer kindness.

They were, of course, not Gentlemen. Few there were of noble blood, those Scots and Irish priests. Most of them had been born in the working class, in poverty, in the midst of other teeming children, in hunger, in cold. They knew hard labor as soon as they began to toddle. They never wondered if they had a vocation for the priesthood, nor did they dally at ease with the thought. A lad knew, absolutely, if he had a vocation, and he pursued it under the most dreadful of circumstances, often without a penny in his pocket or more than the clothes that he stood in. He knew what the life entailed, and so from the very beginning he could have no doubts. A boy or youth with doubts, or hesitations, never became a priest in those days.

It is no wonder, then, that their people reverenced and loved them, for they knew what these men were sacrificing for them because of their love of God and man. Few Catholics in those days, in England, Scotland or Ireland, were rich. If they were, their homes became oases of refreshment, temporary rest, and food, and what charity could be wrung from rich pockets. It was never a great deal, that charity, for men of substance who have never known pain, sorrow, hunger or homelessness are frequently hard of heart. What little money found its way into the offering plates came from hands scoured, callused and twisted by the most arduous work. Still, the homes of the rich Catholics were open to the priests, most of the time, provided the priests did not press too ardently for cash for a school or new bells or an orphanage or a convent, and used tact during the hour of possible extraction. It was a case of “I won’t look if you take anything from my purse, provided you don’t call my attention to it.”

Grandmother had known priests all her life. As they possessed her own sense of humor, vitality, shrewdness and love for living, she remained fond of them.

The Stories…

  • Monsignor Harrington-Smith and the Dread Encounter
  • Father MacBurne and the Doughty Chieftain
  • Father Hughes and the Golden Door
  • Father Ifor Lewis and the Men of Gwenwynnlynn
  • Father Donahue and the Shadow of Doubt
  • Father Padraic Brant and the Pale
  • Father Alfred Ludwin and the Demon Lady
  • Father Thomas Weir and the Problem of Virtue
  • Father Shayne and the Problem of Evil
  • Father Daniel O’Connor and the Minstrel Boy
  • Bishop Quinn and Lucifer

I have hard copy stored away, but I’m using my Kindle.  It is, by the way, a great deal less expensive on Kindle.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Just Too Cool, Priests and Priesthood, REVIEWS and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Les Buissonets says:

    In the UK, it was retitled ‘To See the Glory’. I still have a copy bought many years ago – a delightful book.

    [Thanks for that comment. It seems that the original UK title of the book was, indeed, “To See The Glory”.]

  2. Gaetano says:

    Those are precisely the men (and their female religious counterparts) who built the Church into the strong edifice it was before so-called experts with soft hands and lofty degrees tore it apart.
    Hopefully the new round of hardship will bring the strong ones to the surface once again.

  3. PaulusFranciscus says:

    Gaetano’s comment calls to mind the adage, borrowed from Red Pill circles, to the effect that “Strong men make good times. Good times make weak men. Weak men make hard times. Hard times make strong men.”

    It seems to me the adage applies as well to the clergy as it does to general society. These are hard times. Let us pray for strong men.

  4. jaykay says:

    I just came across the writing of Taylor Caldwell earlier this year, when I did a search for “Catholic novels” and two of her books, on St. Luke – “Dear and Glorious Physician” – and St. Paul – “Great Lion of God” – came up. Well worth reading. I had never heard of her before that, quite honestly.

  5. Diane says:

    I’ve never heard of this author, but based on your comments, I just bought this book. So excited to read it! Thanks Father, for the tip!

  6. tho says:

    Keys of The Kingdom by A. J. Cronin is another good read. A bit controversial, but nevertheless, it presents a strong priest during hard times. Is it any wonder that there were so many prominent converts flowing from the example of these fine men.

  7. Transportsjoie says:

    It’s great to see this book again; I was a Protestant when I first read it over 40 years ago, and it increased my longing to become Catholic, which I finally did nearly 25 years later. Highly recommended -both the book and becoming Catholic. During this time period I also read and re-read “In This House of Brede” by Rumer Godden.

  8. teomatteo says:

    Caldwell loomed large on my reading list while in high school as did A. Rand. Big difference. Caldwell also wrote, ‘On Growing Up Tough’. as i remember.

  9. Les Buissonets says:

    Readers who enjoy ‘Grandmother and the Priests’/’To See the Glory’ might also like the same author’s ‘The Man who Listens’ and its sequel, ‘No One Hears but Him’ – shorter stories and a bit more sentimental, but still very enjoyable, and Catholic.

    And Transportsjoie: if you enjoyed the excellent ‘In this House of Brede’, try Godden’s ‘Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy’.

  10. Jonathan Marshall says:

    “It was no life for the faint-hearted, the timid or the too gentle, or the openly sensitive” – but that’s just what it has become in the last 50 years. Pray for more priests who are real soldiers of Christ.

  11. Taryn says:

    Caldwell’s Pillar of Iron (a novel centering around Cicero) was fantastic.

  12. GHP says:

    Never heard of this book before, but reading your snippet caused me to search it out. Found it used on for $10.50. There were more available.

    I look forward to reading it, especially “Father MacBurne and the Doughty Chieftain.”


  13. Transportsjoie says:

    Thank you – I will look for it!

Comments are closed.